Once a decade, whichever party is in power, its leader notices that life on council estates isn’t quite the same as in – say – Chipping Norton. Then they make some noise about sprucing them up a bit.
Perhaps the Prime Minister or an adviser saw an estate looking shabby from the train into London’s Paddington station, or maybe in the run-up to last year’s general election they visited one briefly to canvass votes.
Briefly, mind, because things can turn quickly for politicians on a council estate. We never really heard much again about David Cameron’s desire to “hug a hoodie” after the 17-year-old Ryan Florence cocked his fingers like a gun at Cameron as the latter visited the former’s Benchill Estate in Manchester in 2007.
This Monday, the PM is to deliver just such a speech having noted that some of the 2011 rioters (in places like Croydon), apparently lived on estates and promising a paltry £140 million for a spruce up.
Given this is to be split across 100 estates, that should allow for a few repainted front doors and giant wheelie bins then. The idea that some estates can be demolished and others rebuilt out of such a miserly sum is simply risible.
“I think it is time with government money - but with massive private sector and perhaps pension sector help - to demolish the worst of these and actually rebuild houses that people feel they can have a real future in,” said the PM at the weekend. “And perhaps pension sector help…” being the giveaway as to how vague the plans are, given that the estates have not actually yet been identified.
Perhaps I can help. Unlike the significant majority of people I’ve encountered in media and politics, I grew up on a council estate. Whitehorse Rd in Croydon wasn’t what I would refer to as a “sink estate”, but it had its moments.
Compared to where everyone else at school lived, yes it was rough, but it wasn’t properly Croydon rough; not like the huge “no-go” areas of New Addington or Roundshaw. It was neither sprawling nor high-rise enough to be truly desolate.
It suffered from many estate clichés: great community spirit yes, but also muggings, assault, vandalism, graffiti and drug-dealing, lots of drug-dealing. Then you grow up, and in my case, grow away to discover that many (urban) areas suffer from muggings, drug-dealing (just more discreet) and crime, especially burglary.
Because it’s not the buildings - it’s the economy, stupid. Anyone who grew up on an estate knows the biggest problem is the inexorably suffocating economic and social nihilism. If there’s nowhere and nothing better to aspire to, then frustration turns to resentment and eventually, anger.
Making poor people’s lives even bleaker via worsening social mobility and job prospects; paying lip-service to affordable housing; not building enough new homes and then punishing poor people via endless benefits squeezes – all of these contribute to that nihilism.
So does transparent tokenism. 100 un-named estates? A not clearly ear-marked £140 million – when even ten times as much is not enough? Vague promises of private sector and pension sector funding? Halving the amount invested in housing since 2010? You really can’t fool all the people all the time, whether they live on council estates or not.
Stefano Hatfield is editor in chief of High50.com